Michael J Nelson on MST3K and the heavily anticipated return of Manos: The Hands of Fate, and RiffTrax

In a sure sign that our dreams are really coming true, Manos: The Hands of Fate is returning to movie theaters for all of us to experience on the big screen. No, this won't be the restoration you've been hearing about — it's the next RiffTrax Live event, and for the first time, the riffers and stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett will be revisiting a classic movie from the show in front of a live audience this Thursday night at 8:00 PM (EST). I spoke with Nelson about Manos and the mission to restore it, as well as MST3K, RiffTrax, and potential future riffs and live events.

Jamie Frevele: Why Manos: The Hands of Fate?

Michael J. Nelson: The reason to revisit Manos is because it's been 19 years, and there was some chatter on the web about a guy who found a pristine copy, and he's in the middle of restoring it right now, I believe. We were in touch with the guy, and we were going to try to get it for this showing, but it just wasn't done. But we were able to find, on our own, a theatrical print that's very nice. It's better than anything that's out there, so it'll be nice. You know, it tamps the "creepy" down a little bit. But the reason to do it was that we'd all forgotten it. We really had, and we thought after 19 years, there's gonna be a whole bunch of people who haven't been exposed to the horror. And it's only fair that they should have to, since we've endured it. Luckily, we've forgotten everything, so it'll be fresh eyes.

Jamie: That's great. I think Generation Y will thank you for this.

Mike: I hope so! I hope they appreciate what we're doing for them!

Jamie: Do you think that besides making it a little less creepy, the restoration will help us look at Manos in an entirely different light?

Mike: (laughs) I think what I was selling Kevin [Murphy] on, I talked to him about it and said, "Hey, I did take a look at the new print, and it does sort of give it a nice gloss!" And Kevin was like, "Oh please, this thing still looks like a snuff film." It's just so… the limitations are all there on film. The fact that it'll look better, I think, is sort of interesting and will make it more fun, but it won't cease the pain under the grime.

Jamie: Well, that's a shame. So, it's not going to bring Hal Warren's ultimate dream to life like we thought it would. I watched a restored scene, and it was the scene where Torgo was playing with the wife's hair and then she yelled at him to never do that again. I was like, "Oh no, that's still just as strange as it was before."

Mike: Yeah, that didn't come across to you as a Katherine Heigl rom-com now that it's been all cleaned up? It still looked creepy, huh?

Jamie: It started out looking a little better, and then I quickly realized the take was just as long as it was when it was dirty-looking.

Mike: Right, in this case, who knows? Maybe it's better to have a layer of gauze over this thing? It's just another separation from the pure horror.

Jamie: It's served Barbara Walters so well.

Mike: (laughs) That's right.

Jamie: At the time [of the original MST3K episode], you were actually a head writer on the show, except for your appearance as Torgo.

Mike: It wasn't my first appearance, but it was definitely my favorite, and we sort of upped the guest appearances after that.

Jamie: Did you try to replicate the metal rigging that the actor who played Torgo used in the movie?

Mike: No, it's astonishing to me that it appears to be a true fact, that it appears to be corroborated, it's like "That's not just a bunch of soiled bedding stuffed into your legs?"

Jamie: No, there were mechanical goings-on under there.

Mike: That's…unfathomable.

Jamie: Was there a piece of you, when it came back up again, that was like, "You know, I really would have liked to riff this one myself"?

Mike: It really was such a team. We didn't have that separation. We were always there, all the writers were always involved in everything because it was so small. I always felt like even making the transition to host was pretty easy because it didn't require a huge shift, because if you were watching a Joel [Hodgson] episode, I was probably standing just off camera with the script, and so were the other writers. It was really a very close atmosphere, so there was no real separation there.

Jamie: It was actually preceded by a short. Is that going to happen again to fill out the time a little bit?

Mike: Yeah, we have a couple of shorts. Manos is a pretty short movie, which, I think, is probably its greatest attribute. We've done previous live shows, and we love combing through old 16 mm films. We get boxes of them shipped here and it's always like Christmas Day, we just rip it open and we spend a day watching these 16 millimeters. And we found a couple of really strange ones that we're always excited to unveil at these live shows.

Jamie: I have to say, the shorts are probably my favorite things ever.

Mike: Yeah, the shorts are so much fun because instantly, they put you in a different frame, and you don't have to do a lot of explaining. With Manos, somebody watching it for the first time is kind of like, "What is this? Where did it come from? Who are these people?" That little hump has to be gotten over, whereas a short you just know: there comes the title and the music, and you know, "This one's about cleanliness! This one's from the '70s and it's a creepy safety film!" So they set themselves up, and that makes them really fun and brief pieces of entertainment.

Jamie: I think the first time I was introduced to MST3K, it was to the shorts, and then my aunt and uncle who were also really huge fans were like "Sometimes the movies are just too long to take, so the shorts are perfect."

Mike: Right. My dad had the same feeling. I would talk to him every couple of weeks. He'd give me a call and he'd say that he watched the show, and he'd go, "Yeah, I saw it. Boy, that movie was really bad!" Like, "Dad, that's kind of the point of the show!" But he just did it, like, every year. But then he would make mention, "The short was good. That was funny! I liked it."

Jamie: I have a friend who has said to me many times "I like that show, but sometimes I just wanna watch the movie because it's so crazy bad!" But sometimes, you need help! And sometimes the commentary is appreciated!

Mike: Yeah, it was an interesting phenomenon in the early days when we did the show, we'd get a few fan letters, and that was the only feedback that we had. The network didn't really talk to us because (laughs) we were out in Minnesota and they were in New York, and so fan letters would come in – most of them were fan letters, but we always cherish the people who were like "What are those characters doing at the bottom of the screen? Please shut them up, I am trying to watch the movie!"

Jamie: Any chance that Pod People might get a live show?

Mike: You know, we were talking about that. That title came up. We haven't looked into it. But I'll leave it at that: The title came up in our little discussions, and that one's been a really long time as well. So, who knows?

Jamie: Are there going to be any surprise appearances, like the same way you made an appearance as Torgo, or the way "Weird" Al Yankovic made an appearance on the Christmas shorts?

Mike: Let me just say there may, in fact, be surprise appearances.

Jamie: Is this the first time you're re-riffing a movie from the show?

Mike: It is, yeah! There have been a couple of shorts that we considered. I think there was one I even started writing – this is how lame it is – and then I went, "Wait a minute, this is familiar…" I don't how many hundreds of shorts that I've done, and they're all kind of gray and from the exact same era, so it's hard to remember.

Jamie: How long do the shorts take to riff? I feel like the full-length movies are quite an undertaking.

Mike: Yeah, it's much shorter because one of the problems you encounter, especially when RiffTrax does the blockbusters, the modern blockbusters, which, you know, every movie now has to be at least two hours and forty minutes long. I don't know why that trend is continuing, but there's only so many cards in the deck as far as jokes that you can make on a particular thing. And as it starts to get longer, you've obviously pretty much tapped them all! So it's a lot more challenging, whereas a short – you take it on its own terms for 10 minutes and you're done. So from a writing perspective, it is definitely easier to do a short.

Jamie: If there was ever a documentary about Manos, would you want to be involved in it, besides just providing commentary on it? would you want to go make that thing?

Mike: I'm always wary of being too close to the thing. The distance helps to separate you from it. But I'd definitely be interested in seeing it. You just want to be a little bit at arm's length from the things you're making fun of, because it gets dangerous. I have met people who we've riffed and had a chance to be friends with them, and then it does kind of put them off-limits of being made fun of. It's the same phenomenon in a way, you just want to have a bit of distance.

Jamie: Somebody pointed out to me that today (August 8) is the 13th anniversary of the airing of Diabolik, the series finale. Any thoughts on that?

Mike: Wow, 13 years. I'm just old, I guess. Since then I've just been so wrapped up in bad movies still, and it's making me question, "What is wrong with me? Why do I keep returning to this?" But there is something about it that I really enjoy, the craft of doing this peculiar kind of humor writing that we do. I've been lucky enough to be able to do other things, but I enjoy it. I've been very blessed to continue to do this, and so I don't regret a bit of it.

Jamie: Have you been able to watch movies just as recreation without heckling them in your head?

Mike: Not anything that is flawed, but only in my head if I go to see a movie. But it makes you appreciate, when you see things that are done poorly, over and over and over again, you realize how complicated it is and what a difficult feat it is to pull off a very good movie, and so when you see them, it actually does give you a better appreciation when something doesn't look like something Hal Warren has made, but rather rises well above it. You go, "Well done, sir! That is really tough to pull off!"

Jamie: Have you guys ever riffed a movie that made you feel guilty about riffing it? Because you have riffed good movies.

Mike: We've talked about that because we think the process of riffing on it, obviously our point of view is not "this thing is horrible, and let's just continue to throw insults at it." The point of view is like "What would this be like to sit and watch this movie with your funniest friend?" Whether that's one of your favorite movies, or whether it's something that deserves some of those insults, we try to fit it appropriately. So as we've talked about the philosophy of that and just as a challenge to ourselves, we did do Casablanca. Because it's in the top five for all of us, so we did that. And it was interesting! It was kind of fun. A lot of people liked it a lot, and the movie's already funny and already great. It's not something we would do again and again, but we just wanted to see how that experience would play out.

Jamie: I think I remember seeing that you guys did Casablanca and was like, "Oh, well that's ballsy."

Mike: Yeah, there are things we wouldn't touch.

Jamie: Like what?

Mike: It's more about subject matter. We're obviously not going to do Schindler's List. There are things like that. But we've talked about doing The Godfather, just to see, because that's still a movie that's watched a lot, so people might enjoy a different take on it.

Jamie: What movie, in recent years, do you think could hold a candle to Manos' badness?

Mike: It's really funny. This may seem self-serving, I swear it's not, I swear I'm telling the truth. We're doing a live showing of Birdemic coming up in October, I don't know if you've seen this, but it… it just makes me smile. Manos I find kind of creepy, but Birdemic is bad on that level that…you know, every single choice this guy made was the wrong one. Like every frame of the movie was a wrong choice, every actor was wrong, and yet, it's a sublime experience. The unintentional humor is there throughout, it doesn't really drag in terms of that. That's the one that is currently my favorite.

It's important that you realize that it's a serious attempt at making a good movie. That's something you need to get over, because when I first watched it, I was like, "Well, this is ridiculous, someone just tried to make the worst movie ever made." Then you look into and you realize, "Oh no, he was entirely sincere in every bit of it," and that makes it so much more fun.

The Room is very close behind it.

Jamie: Have you gotten requests [to riff The Room]?

Mike: We did an MP3 version of it, we haven't thought about it for a live show. But that one rises above, too. You have to see Tommy Wiseau's nude backside, unfortunately, and I don't know if I can subject a live audience to that.

Jamie: Well, I think in New York you could, because that movie is huge here.

Mike: Is it? Do they still do midnight shows and stuff?

Jamie: Yes they do. So, if you do ever decide to do The Room live, I would definitely suggest doing it in New York.

Mike: That's a good thought. We have not staged it from New York, we'd always wanted to, so maybe The Room launch would be a good one.

Jamie: Have you ever gotten any responses from current filmmakers after riffing one of their movies?

Mike: Yeah! Well, I wouldn't say it was an angry response, but Tommy Wiseau did call us. We had a long phone conversation with Tommy Wiseau, which I confess, we were trying to keep him on the phone as long as we could. Because it was just so much fun to listen to. But I really think that he didn't understand the concept, and he thought that we were selling his movie, and we were trying to explain over and over, "No, we were just selling an MP3 that people can either choose to listen to or not," and he insisted, still, that "Well, you still owe me money," and we were like, "No! It's a separate thing!" But then we eventually talked to the guy who played Mark. He's a good guy, he listened to the RiffTrax, and he liked it a lot. So he explained to Tommy what it was, and said, "No, no, they're just poking fun at the movie like everybody else." So he understood that.

Jamie: The RiffTrax commentaries are generally good-natured, and you're certainly not going out of your way to be horrible and mean and hurtful.

Mike: We try very hard to do that. We are not mean and hurtful people. And who wants to see that? That's always my thought. There's a lot of places where we could sort of lash out, and occasionally, I will admit that we do, when it feels warranted. Because who wants to sit and watch some bitter person talk about how much they don't like something, or hate this, or whatever? We really do try to keep it light, as much as is possible.

Jamie: If anything, I've noticed that if you do go into that territory, it's turned into a joke, like joke rage.

Mike: Yeah, we have "alter-characters" that go into the booth that are occasionally horrible people, but usually that humor is directed at ourselves, it's not directed outward.

Jamie: Are there any movies you're not allowed to riff?

Mike: There are movies that we've asked to do for a live show, like something a little more modern, cheesy '80s. And it's not like the studios or the filmmakers really object, it's just that they're a little skittish about embarrassing the stars that they still have to work with. We think that with enough cajoling we could get away with it. I'd love to do Roadhouse live or something like that. But as of yet, we haven't been able to get them over the hump of "the movie still exists, it's all in good fun, if we could actually get a star to watch a RiffTrax, he'd understand it." That it's not mean stuff, it's all fun.

Jamie: I know you've had guest riffers. Have you ever had a guest who was in the movie they were riffing?

Mike: No, although Neil Patrick Harris, who did his favorite movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with me, he did suggest doing the space epic that he's in, the insects, the fighting the insects on another planet, Paul Verhoeven, Charlie Sheen's ex-wife is in it…

Jamie: Starship Troopers. [Ed. note: This required an internet search.]

Mike: Yes. Thank you.

Jamie: That would be amazing!

Mike: Yeah, it's quite long, so he would have to sit in a booth with me for quite a while.

Jamie: But that would be worth it!

Mike: Yeah. Hopefully we can pull that off soon. I know he's a very busy and sought-after man. But I hope I can cajole him into the studio.

Jamie: He has all those awards shows that everyone wants him to host forever and ever.

Mike: I know! Maybe if he stops the tap-dancing, maybe he can lend me a few hours.

Jamie: Do you have any RiffTrax best-sellers that are specifically, weirdly successful?

Mike: Yeah, because it reaches out beyond the typical RiffTrax crowd, the Twilight tracks are just a big hit. And we love them. They just worked so well for us. And a lot of guys who are forced to watch Twilight with their girlfriends, it gives them a sort of relief. Or they get revenge on their girlfriends by giving them a RiffTrax party for it after they've seen it in the theater.

Jamie: If you could riff any non-film medium, what would it be?

Mike: This might be a boring answer, but it would probably be the video game stuff, because it's so cheesy, and the bad dialogue, and things like that. Who knows? Maybe the Olympics.

Jamie: How do you think MST3K's style of commentary has affected comedy for a new generation of comedians? Do you think it has had an effect?

Mike: I know that a lot of people do the movie riffing thing, even if it's not in the same style, it's more funny commentary. I know Adam Corolla does it, I know Weird Al, and Paul Scheer, and they did a little take on Birdemic. It wasn't sitting with it, but it was a sort of podcast, bringing up points and showing scenes. I feel like that whole "commenting back" at pop culture in a good-natured way is something that if we influenced anyone, then maybe that was a good thing.

Jamie: Do you plan on doing RiffTrax for The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises?

Mike: Oh, absolutely. There's no question.


You can buy tickets for RiffTrax Live's presentation of Manos: The Hands of Fate at Fathom Events. RiffTrax Live: "Birdemic" will hit theaters on October 25!

Also new on RiffTrax is a streaming video of Neutron the Atomic Superman vs. the Death Robots, which clearly has something for everyone in it.